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California Senate primary could set up a blockbuster November race

By Arit John, CNN

(CNN) — Four years after he became the Democratic face of Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, California Rep. Adam Schiff has become the front-runner for a new role: US senator.

Ahead of the state’s open primary Tuesday, Schiff has maintained a small but steady lead in the polls, raised the most money and spent more than $30 million on ads. He has the backing of much of the party establishment in the state, including 75% of California’s Democratic US House delegation, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former US Sen. Barbara Boxer.

And the most prominent Republican in the race, a former baseball player who has not aired a single TV ad, just might have enough party support to make it to the general election, thanks in part to ads Schiff has aired calling him “too conservative.”

Under California’s primary system, all candidates run on the same ballot with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advancing to November. In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Tuesday’s result could either set up a grueling Democrat-on-Democrat battle in the fall or put one of the three Democratic members of the House on a fast track to the Senate.

“We’re working like we are last place,” Schiff said of his campaign in an interview with CNN. “My view is you run scared or run unopposed.”

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 24% of likely primary voters said they supported Schiff, 19% said they supported US Rep. Katie Porter, 18% were behind Republican Steve Garvey, a former Los Angeles Dodgers star, and 10% backed US Rep. Barbara Lee. Eric Early, a Republican businessman who did not qualify for any of the race’s three debates, was supported by 4% of respondents.

Choose your fighter

The campaign started in earnest early last year with Schiff, Porter and Lee entering the race for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat. After Feinstein died in September, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to electing Democrats who support abortion rights, to the seat. Butler said soon after she would not run for a full term.

Californians are tasked with voting twice for Senate: once to fill the remainder of Feinstein’s term after the general election and again for a full six-year term beginning in January 2025. In both instances, Democratic voters will face a difficult question: What kind of liberal do they want to promote to the Senate?

Schiff, who has represented parts of Los Angeles in Congress since 2001, was known for much of his career as a mild-mannered centrist. His position on the House Intelligence Committee wasn’t meant to be a high-profile role, either. But that changed during the Trump era, as Schiff investigated Trump’s finances and ties to Russia.

Schiff’s role as the lead manager at Trump’s first impeachment trial – and the accompanying flurry of cable news appearances – elevated his reputation among anti-Trump Democrats nationwide. When Republicans gained control of the House last year, they removed Schiff from the intelligence panel and censured him over his role in Trump investigations. He called the vote a “badge of honor” and fundraised off it.

“Let’s face it, Donald Trump and the House Republicans should have to file in-kind contribution reports to the Schiff campaign,” said Garry South, a California-based Democratic strategist.

Schiff has leaned into his fame as a Trump foe.

“What we’re emphasizing is my ability to take on some of the biggest fights to defend our democracy against a would-be dictator,” he said. “I have been in the center of that fight, and should the need arise again, California needs a senator who is capable of taking on a corrupt president.”

Schiff’s opponents have sought to undercut that message. Porter has noted that she supported launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump months before Schiff, and Lee is the lead plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against Trump over his role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

Porter, who has become known for her intense grilling of bankers and CEOs at congressional hearings, has emphasized her record of never accepting donations from corporate political action committees and of calling for an end to the earmark process that allows members of Congress to direct federal funding to specific projects. Schiff and Lee stopped taking corporate PAC money during their Senate bids but have defended the use of earmarks.

“I ran in a very competitive seat, a very swing seat, and despite that, I have consistently stood up to corporate special interests and made clear that I cannot be bought,” Porter said. The former consumer protection attorney and law professor flipped a GOP-held seat in Orange County in 2018.

Last month, a super PAC funded by cryptocurrency financiers started targeting Porter, alleging that she took campaign funds from executives from Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Banks. The Sacramento Bee rated the ad “mostly false,” noting that the donations did not come from major lobbying groups. The super PAC, Fairshake, has spent $8.9 million bashing Porter.

Allies say the attacks are further evidence that Porter is effective at holding corporate actors accountable.

“They don’t want a cop on the beat,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has backed Porter. “And they don’t want another Elizabeth Warren in the Senate holding them accountable.”

Attack ads

California’s top-two system has led to unusual rivalries and one-sided alliances between the top candidates in the race. Schiff and a super PAC backing him have spent millions on ads painting Garvey as a conservative in what political strategists say is a clear attempt to drive up Republican support.

“The only thing that most voters knew about Steve Garvey on New Year’s Day was that he used to play for the Dodgers and the Padres,” said Dan Schnur, a political communications professor at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. “He hasn’t had the money to fill in those blanks, so Schiff and his allies are doing it for him.”

Garvey raised just $2.1 million through February 14, compared with the $31 million raised by Schiff, $28 million by Porter and $5 million by Lee, according to Federal Election Commission filings. During debates, Garvey has held off on describing where he stands on key issues. On Trump, he has tried to straddle a line between embracing the former president and keeping him at arm’s length.

Garvey’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview or comment.

At the first Senate debate, Garvey was asked whether he was still undecided between Trump and President Joe Biden. Though the former baseball player said the world was safer under Trump, he said he’d make his decision on Election Day.

“I will look at the two opponents, I will determine what they did, and at that time I will make my choice,” Garvey said.

Asked to respond, Porter replied: “Well, California, I think what they say is true – once a Dodger, always a Dodger.”

Porter, who called Schiff’s ads elevating Garvey among Republicans a “brazenly cynical” strategy, has since started attacking Early as the real MAGA Republican in the race, hoping to cut into any lead Garvey has over her.

Both Schiff and Porter have defended their strategies.

“We’re all on the same ballot together. We’re on the same stage together,” Schiff said. “And I’m distinguishing my record from my Democratic colleagues on the basis of, not ideology, but on the basis of effectiveness and leadership. And I’m distinguishing my record from my Republican opponent very much on the basis of ideology, of policy and his support of Donald Trump.”

Schiff has also pointed to instances of Garvey attacking him on Fox News.

Porter argued that Schiff is misrepresenting Garvey’s record to keep Democrats off the ballot, while she is raising awareness about another candidate. She and her allies have warned that if Garvey makes it to the general election, higher Republican turnout could hurt down-ballot Democrats.

“I think these ads are weakening our democracy. They’re weakening our ability to engage Democratic voters all the way through November,” Porter said. “And I think we should focus on honesty and choices and setting the record straight.”

Early, who has accused Garvey of not sharing his views on key issues, said Porter had correctly identified the true MAGA Republican in the race.

“The basic things that she’s saying about me are truthful,” he told CNN. “I am the proud Trump supporter in this race.”

Split vote

While every Republican vote for Early could help Porter, she’s splitting a different voting bloc with Lee: progressives.

Though Lee is trailing in polling and fundraising, she has racked up key endorsements from groups such as Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly known as NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Gen-Z for Change.

“Look, Californians have a lot of great options,” said Mini Timmaraju, the president of Reproductive Freedom for All. “But here’s the differentiator for Barbara Lee: She’s been in this fight from the beginning of her career.”

Lee has built up a reputation of standing up to members of both parties. The Oakland lawmaker was the only member of Congress to oppose the 2001 authorization for use of military force after the September 11 attacks and has continued to push for its repeal. More recently, she has been the only major candidate in the Senate field to call for an unconditional ceasefire in Gaza.

“My opponents follow,” Lee told CNN. “They haven’t led on the majority of the issues that have been really hard in the Congress.”

None of the three House Democrats running in the Senate primary will be able to run for their old seats, meaning that at least two of them will leave public office in January. If neither Porter nor Lee make it into the top two, California – the first state to send two women to the Senate simultaneously – will have no women in its two-member Senate delegation for the first time in 30 years.

California Democrats have had mixed reactions to that possibility.

“If Lee or Porter don’t end up in the top two, we’ve lost an opportunity to have another woman from California in the Senate,” Timmaraju said. “That’s very alarming.”

Boxer, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992 with Feinstein against the backdrop of the Anita Hill hearings, endorsed Schiff after Porter accused him of taking “dirty money” during the first Senate debate and said his efforts to elevate Garvey hurt the Democratic women in the race. Schiff, Boxer said, was best situated to meet the moment.

“What is the backdrop today? Democracy itself,” the former senator said. “The threat of Trump, for Democrats here in California, looms large.  And who is the one who has really taken Trump on out of the three? It’s no question, it’s Adam.”

But if two Democrats make it to November, the real contest would be just beginning.

“Sometimes people get mad at California Democrats for actually having a real race, because they think that that California money should go elsewhere, and they view us as a piggy bank,” said Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Porter backer. “The idea that California should not be allowed to have a robust Democrat versus Democrat contest, because it might be expensive, I just don’t agree with that.”

CNN’s David Wright contributed to this report.

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